Monday, May 21, 2018

Podcast Review - Why Is This Happening?

To call Chris Hayes prolific is an understatement. At the tender age of 39, he has already written two books, began hosting a cable news show at 32, and has covered politics for nearly two decades. He is now branching out into podcasting, and his maiden voyage in that medium, Why Is This Happening? is a thoroughly engaging effort at explaining complex issues of the day. 

In many ways, the podcast format plays more to Hayes's strengthens than his eponymous hour-long TV show and harkens back to his original effort on MSNBC, Up With Chris. While the eight-o'clock hour requires devotion to a structured format with multiple guests covering the news of the day in staccato segments that often elide deeper understanding, Why Is This Happening? allows Hayes to stretch his legs and let his full nerd flag fly. 

The podcast is Hayes interviewing a subject matter expert for more than a half-hour in an effort to understand today's world. This allows Hayes's innate intellectual curiosity to shine. As an interviewer, this is critical - you get the sense that Hayes has not only read the books, articles, and essays written by his guests, but the books, articles, and essays his guests read in putting together their theses and the books, articles, and essays that contradict his guests' arguments. What results is a robust, deep discussion that informs the listener in ways that a five-minute TV segment is simply unable to do.

It is Hayes's fluency on so many different topics that makes Why so compelling. Compared to another wunderkind of his era - Ezra Klein - Hayes avoids the starry-eyed naivete of his wonkish colleague. Whereas Klein came into the public sphere through a college dorm room blog, Hayes was pounding the pavement in Chicago, experiencing, at a granular level, how policy, politics, and everyday life intersect.

This distinction is important. While both Hayes and Klein are well-read and thoughtful, Klein is too quick to offer benefit-of-the-doubt absolution for public policy that is abhorrent. Hayes, while unabashedly progressive, is clear-eyed in what has gone on in this country over the past several decades. For example, in his interview with Corey Rubin, Hayes concedes up front that the conservative movement has largely succeeded over the past 40 years in kneecapping regulation and redistributing income upward. But the genius of Why is in how Hayes is able to tie together these actions not just as a form of corporate domination by the elite class, but how it reflects what is now a centuries-long tradition of consolidating power by the white majority. 

Rubin’s observation that wealthy whites have successfully turned poorer whites against even poorer minority groups for more than a century is echoed in Hayes’s conversation with Brittney Cooper, as they discuss the different ways the struggles of whites and blacks are framed in the media and culture. Cooper’s interview also delves into the black experience in America and circles around everything from white male privilege to “Mean Girl” attacks on Beyonce for having too much. As Hayes point out (not ironically) it is a struggle to be human, but not everyone’s struggle is the same. When the conversation shifts to the competition among upper class parents to help their kids get ahead, Cooper rightly notes that is precisely the problem - the idea there are a limited number of opportunities in a zero-sum game where the air is rarefied - instead of making the effort to lift more people up.  

In speaking with Dexter Filkins, listeners will grasp not just the complexity of Middle East politics, but how easily small missteps might lead to the type of regional conflagration metastasizing into a global conflict that happened in 1914 and led to World War I. His fascinating discussion with Brittney Cooper is a master class on understanding identity politics not as a slur too often hurled to dismiss your political opponents, but a core tenet of how each of us views the world. These are not small ideas and the one-on-one conversation Hayes has with his guests gives them room to breathe, the conversation to meander into different directions, and has the salutary effect of giving the listener the feeling of sitting in on a friendly chat with really smart people. 

Of course, the question begged by Why Is This Happening? is Does Any Of This Matter? In delving into the theories of Edmund Burke or the millennia-long fight between Sunni and Shia, the podcast is certainly erudite, but can also come off as precisely the kind of "East Coast" elitist discussion that conservatives have inveighed against since George Wallace bemoaned pointy-headed intellectuals and Nixon fumed against the editorial board of the New York Times. Ultimately, forty minute deep dives into political theory, identity politics or military history is fine for the Georgetown cocktail party circuit, but how useful it is when the President can send out a tweet that consumes news cycles or makes stock markets gyrate wildly is less clear.

That is not to criticize Hayes's work - once upon a time, the public intellectual, not to mention good public policy informed by research, historical analysis, and its effect on people, was valued. No longer. But to Hayes's credit, he has never tried to sugar coat his bookishness or love of political theory. Now, unshackled from his anchor's desk at MSNBC, he has the opportunity to explore topics with the seriousness and attention to detail he clearly relishes. If Hayes's early podcasts are any indication of where this will lead, Why Is This Happening? will be a regular addition to your podcast rotation.

Ep 1 - Corey Rubin (B+)
Ep 2 - Dexter Filkins (A)
Ep 3 - Brittney Cooper (A)

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Designated Survivor

As TV show premises go, the idea behind Designated Survivor was pretty good. Take an obscure, but interesting thing about our government – that one cabinet member is kept away from the President’s State of the Union address just in case a catastrophic event occurs that wipes out the rest of government – mix in a humble everyman as the accidental Commander-in-Chief when the black swan event happens, add a sinister plot that thrusts him into that job, and presto, TV ratings gold. You can almost hear the pitch meeting: “It will be The West Wing meets 24. We will even get Keifer Sutherland to play the lead role.”

So why is it, that after just two seasons, ABC canceled Designated Survivor? To me, this was an instance of the whole being far less than the sum of its parts. On paper, the idea made sense – what would happen if suddenly, our entire Congress, Supreme Court, not to mention the President, Vice President, and every other cabinet officer except the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was killed in a terrorist attack. Putting aside the fact that in real life, this would make Ben Carson President, Sutherland’s Tom Kirkman is a mild-mannered academic, a decent and caring husband and father, and the last person who could ever get elected President precisely because he is presented as the antithesis of a politician.

But Designated Survivor could never decide which it wanted to be – The West Wing or 24 and its failure to land on a consistent narrative arc is largely what doomed it. You could see in Season 1 a clear preference for the latter – an attempt at pulse-pounding (though my heart rate rarely accelerated past “mild jog”) drama involving shady bad guys who always seemed one step ahead. There was, for example, a Manchurian Candidate type, a Congressman at the speech who miraculously survived, but, it turns out, because he was tipped off and part of the plot, with the ultimate goal of getting him to the White House. He, and others, were chased by plucky FBI agent Hannah Wells (Maggie Q), who was hunting down clues while always in peril. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s President Kirkman spends the early episodes in a combination of impotent rage and in-over-his-head self-doubt. The problem was, having been identified as Jack Bauer in 24, you wanted Sutherland to take out the bad guys himself; instead, he got bogged down in bureaucracy.  

While the FBI searched for the ring leaders, the show ran aground on the other half of its premise – how do you stand up a new government after the current one has been torn down? But lack of exposition and an unwillingness to just rip the band-aid off to create story lines and characters made this half of the show weak. The President’s main antagonist was the opposing party’s designated survivor (which I do not think is a real thing), but by the end of the season, she was joining his cabinet, never to be seen or heard from again. You could almost see the writers trying to find their way out of narrative dead ends as the body count rose, story lines involving Kirkman’s family receded, and the attendant shock endings (there was, of course, an assassination attempt on Kirkman, the killing of the FBI’s Deputy Director, and the Manchurian candidate as well), tried to clear the way for a second season reboot.  

Season two course-corrected too far in the other direction. The 24 aspect became an ancillary story line that was confusing and esoteric (mostly involving a computer hacker that turned out to be one of Kirkman’s friends) while the show went full West Wing with rat-a-tat-tat Sorkian walk-talk dialogue that lacked the panache or brio of that beloved show’s wordsmith. Episodes featured the predictable legislative squabbles, foreign policy crises, and B- and C-plot romantic entanglements among the staffers, but none of it felt earned or authentic. Kirkman’s wife was killed off halfway through the second season, setting up a convoluted 25th amendment crisis (presided over by a random Vice President who came into the show out of nowhere as the Mayor of D.C. and by the end of that episode was a heartbeat away from the presidency) when recordings of Kirkman’s therapy sessions were leaked on the Internet, purporting to show him as unstable. 

And attempts at introducing new characters either felt forced (sure, let’s sign up Michael J. Fox to play a lawyer who, in the span of three episodes is a special prosecutor against the president, a private attorney representing a kidnapped American, and a special prosecutor for the President who ends up turning on him) or superfluous (hi there, Tom Kirkman’s younger brother, greetings, ambitious young assistant who gets three lines in each episode!)

Ultimately, it was all to the show’s detriment, resulting in its cancelation. While the show’s failures were many (the haphazard plotting and mediocre casting primary among them), Designated Survivor also suffered from being asked to do too much. Although it will go down as a two-season failure, the show produced a total of 44 episodes – four more than the acclaimed drama Better Call Saul will have aired after its pending fourth season. If dramas aired on cable TV, Netflix, and Amazon have proven anything, it is that less is often more. So too here. Had Designated Survivor been written around a ten-to-thirteen-episode season and not twenty-two, the writing and story development would have been more focused. Instead of trying to serve the dual needs of a conspiracy thriller and a political melodrama, it could have chosen one over the other. Ironically, the seeds of its own destruction were built right into the show’s conceit.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Wednesday, May 16, 2018


Hollywood is a land of make believe inhabited by people who pretend to be someone else. Any time a TV show tackles the struggles of actors, there is an Inception quality to it - you have real-life stars portraying not-yet-famous characters next to real-life not-yet-famous actors trying to break through and make it big. In Barry, which wrapped its first season on Sunday, the added wrinkle is that among the strivers at a community theater acting troupe is a hit man who made his way to La La Land to kill one of their classmates. 

The season unfolds on the outskirts of Los Angeles, on stage and among the low rent criminals Barry meets. The two worlds intersect because dimwitted blonde Ryan Madison is sleeping with the wife of a Chechen mob boss named Goran. Barry is contracted to kill Ryan but can’t go through with it after accidentally walking in on an acting class led by one Gene M. Cousineau (played with brio by Henry Winkler, who walks off with every scene he is in) and befriending Ryan and his fellow classmates. 

You quickly realize everyone in Barry is D-list. Gene is a past-his-prime actor still auditioning for one line roles and whose main career achievement appears to be a coke-fueled performance of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night not in the three hours it usually takes, but less than forty minutes. Nevertheless, Gene is beloved by his actors, a motley assortment of fringe talent whose acting credits extend no further than You Tube videos and a CSI cameo as a dead body. The Chechen Mafia types think it’s ‘big time’ to send a bullet to a rival gang but Goran, and his goofy number two, Noho Hank, conduct business over phones tapped by the police, record their own criminal behavior for reasons unknown, and Hank sends Barry texts with emojis more appropriate for a twelve-year-old than a cold-blooded killer.  

It is all low rent, like the bric-a-brac that sprung up around Disneyland in Anaheim because Walt was not smart enough to buy the adjacent land (a problem he rectified in Florida). The theater troupe runs through scenes from movies while Gene toggles between boredom and ferocity (his takedown of Barry’s performance of the scene made famous by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross might be the single funniest in the show’s eight episodes) while the police officers who investigate Ryan’s murder have a Keystone Kops aspect to them. The lead detective, Janice, is seduced by Gene’s hammy come-ons while her underlings generally fumble about until the case breaks late in the season. 

As Barry’s sort-of love interest, Sarah Goldburg’s Sally Reed comes closest to getting her brass ring. She desperately wants to nail her role as Macbeth in front of an agent who she hopes will sign her so she can then dump him when she becomes more successful (hey, it worked for Emma Stone). While she has the unfortunate experience of getting dropped by another manager who she won’t sleep with, she is a ladder-climber, dropping Barry when he becomes jealous of her flirtations with a guy who voices Pinnochio and muscling her way past her classmates for the starring role in their Shakespeare production only to circle back to Barry when his grief over killing a Marine buddy spills over into his Macbeth performance with her. 

Overall, the show has an off-kilter feel. Through the first half of the eight episode season, Barry’s world weary assassin is reminiscent of John Cusack in Gross Pointe Blank. Bill Hader is more sad sack, his facial expressions elastic in joy when Sally is with him but often puzzled and muted when trying to cope with his handler, Fuches, and the Chechens. The introduction of Chris (the Marine Corps buddy) midway through the season is the pivot point that takes the show in a much darker direction. Barry, Chris, and two other former Marines are enlisted to knock out Goran’s Bolivian competition, but their mission fails. The two Marines are killed in a shootout and Barry murders Chris when he threatens to go to the police, staging the scene as a suicide even though Barry had met the man’s wife and child. 

Barry appears to wrap things in a neat Hollywood bow when Barry murders Goran and his henchmen and the police pin the whole mess on a gang war with the Bolivians, Ryan (the deceased actor) and one of the Marines who died in the shootout with the Bolivians. But in an odd coda scene, we flash forward in time. Barry and Sally are together, working on a two-person play (directed by Gene) and spending a weekend with Gene and Janice at Gene’s retreat. Janice notices Barry’s surname is listed as “Block” not “Berkman” on the play’s poster and her suspicions are further aroused when Gene reminisces about the impromptu monologue about being a hit man Barry did to get into Gene’s acting class. When Janice sneaks out to look up “Barry Block” on Facebook, she ties the whole caper together, realizing it was Barry who appeared on a grainy video of the original murder scene. He confronts her and tries to talk her out of arresting him. When she demurs, he kills her, promising to be better as the show fades to black.

Huh? Barry has been renewed for a second season so I suppose this loose end will also be tied up, or maybe it was all just a dream (there were several such sequences in past episodes). This is Hollywood after all. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Cornell - 5/8/77

May Eighth is practically a religious holiday for Deadheads. To the converted, no more needs to be said. The mere utterance of this phrase immediately calls to mind a live show of such technical precision it is now immortalized in the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. But to paraphrase from the Hagaddah, “what makes Cornell different from all other nights?” 

Cornell long ago secured its place atop the ranking of greatest Dead shows of all-time, but even in that rarefied air, opinions vary. Declaring something as “the best” on a topic as subjective as music, and particularly among a rabid fan base that runs the spectrum from octogenarians to Millenials, is impossible. 

I prefer to think of Cornell as the best example of that era of the Dead’s music - which is no small thing. The band had “retired” in October 1974 amid financial problems, burn out, and an interest among the members in pursuing solo projects. A four night Winterland run closed this chapter of what is known as “Jazz-era” Dead - shows punctuated by lengthy improvisational jams, trumpet and saxophone accompaniment, and a numbing perfection that makes one show indistinguishable from the other in the high quality of the musicianship. At times, these shows stretched to nearly four hours, and signature versions of songs like Dark Star, Eyes of the World, and Stella Blue abound. 

But even in retirement, the band never quite left the stage. A sui generis show in March 1975 stands as a lone example of what can best be described as Prog Rock on LSD, a 40 minute set comprising the entire album Blues For Allah featuring Merl Saunders on keyboard and jams so thick you feel like you are being sucked into a black hole. 

When the band emerged fully in 1976, the sound changed too. With Mickey Hart back in the fold, the group moved away from five-piece jazz influences and into a more traditional rock ’n’ roll sound splashed with a light coating of pop exemplified in the early 1977 album Terrapin Station. The band also settled on what would become the standard format for their live shows (but for some acoustic/electric sets in 1980) until Garcia’s passing in 1995: two sets with a “drums/space” segment midway through the second set, and a single encore. 

By early 1977, with the tour rust shaken off, the Dead alit for a spring tour for the ages, invading the Northeast with hot warm up shows in New York City, New Haven, Passaic, Boston and Springfield before landing in Ithaca, New York on the night of May 8th. The band burst out of the gate with an aggressive version of New Mingelwood Blues featuring hard charging leads by Garcia and speaker-rattling bass bombs by Lesh. First sets allowed the band to root through its back catalogue of musical influences - rhythm and blues, bluegrass, country, and folk, and Cornell is no different. Be it the ragtime feel of Deal or the country standard Mama Tried (with Weir giving a “thanks, Mom” nod on Mother’s Day). The band is on point and as will be clear when the fireworks really start later, the unsung hero of the night is Betty Jackson-Cantor, whose mix is sheer perfection - the instruments blending so seamlessly you would be excused for thinking the band was in a studio, the vocals clear as a bell. Of course, the band was not above contemporary influences and the stretched out set closer, Dancin’ in the Streets, a song of protest and resistance in the 60s, is rearranged in a hypnotic disco tempo that just will not stop. 

For those of us who grew up on Cornell via cassette tape, the second set starts anachronistically. Can we rate different versions of Take A Step Back and deem this one the best? There is something in Jerry’s “horribly smashed” comment that always makes me chuckle and Bob’s admonition that you don’t want all your friends up front to be “real bug eyed” is just so Bobby. The band must have been satisfied with the crowd’s response, because Scarlet>Fire starts with a musical explosion that floods your eardrums in a way that every time I hear it, I mutter to myself “perfect from note one.” And it is. There is sheer joy in Garcia’s voice and magic in his finger tips as he leads the band through this staple of the Dead’s canon. Jerry’s leads are matched by Lesh’s throbbing bass and Keith Godchaux’s rich piano counterpoint. 

The thing you notice is how effortless the playing sounds, like the notes are arranged in front of them and the band is simply following a chart, but what you are experiencing instead is a group performing at a creative peak. The transition from Scarlet into Fire is extended, as Garcia starts playing the line until Lesh decides to join. While latter-day Heads are familiar with the coupling of these two songs, this was all new territory back in ’77. The band brings the funk as Phil lays down a groove that will get your toes tapping, with Jerry picking up on the beat and away we go through verses and soaring guitar solos. Fire is also a perfect example of Weir’s unconventional but “just exactly perfect” (for the Dead) rhythm guitar playing. He does not play the rhythm so much as embellish Garcia’s leads, punctuating the musical themes while allowing Garcia’s brilliance to take center stage. 

Weir’s Estimated Prophet was a newcomer to the live rotation and was played frequently throughout 1977, including at Cornell. But even after a few months, the band was already stretching the relatively straight-forward studio version into a slinkier live performer, with Garcia leaning into his wah-wah pedal and the song taking on a bit of a reggae feel. 

As events unfolded, it is easy to see Estimated as a sort of palate cleanser before the St Stephen > NFA > St Stephen main course. Part of what makes Cornell so memorable is even the minor hiccups are perfect, as in Donna’s too-soon entry into the “lady fingers” stanza of St Stephen, her voice ephemeral and drifting off as if it was always planned that way. The band barrels into Not Fade Away with gusto. Of course, Not Fade Away in the 70s was not the second-set crowd pleasing love letter from the band to the audience it became in later years. No, in Ithaca, New York, NFA was a balls-out rocker, stretched through and through and left hung out to dry, an orgy of musicianship that gives you hammer throwing guitar leads, room-rattling bass drops, and piano playing that will assault your senses in ways you did not think possible. 

And then, after a brief segue back into St Stephen, Jerry throws out Morning Dew, a 14-minute masterpiece of music that has within it moments of hushed silence, where you can hear a pin drop in a venue filled with 4,800 people, interspersed with rich instrumentals that punctuate the lyrics as the song builds toward a crescendo that if heard under the proper influence, may literally make you feel like you are seeing God. It all comes to a head as Jerry goes for ever more ambitious leads, his fingers fanning his guitar at such a speed the room starts to spin; and, as he bellows the final song’s final line, “I guess it does not matter . . . anyway” Keith hits a piano run that puts an exclamation point on the proceedings. The song will literally take your breath away, Weir’s meek “thank you” not nearly doing justice to what may be the greatest single song performance in the band’s 30-year career. The night ends with a quintessential Dead coda - One More Saturday Night - played on Sunday. 

Whew. Much has been written about Cornell, particularly with its “official” release last year around the time of the 40th anniversary of the concert. For me, the show has been a part of my life for going on 25 years. I know every note, from the wonky one Jerry hits to bring the band back into St Stephen to the one Phil plays signaling the full transition into Fire on the Mountain. I have played “air piano” as Keith closes out Morning Dew and mimicked Weir’s A-YOW during One More Saturday Night. Whether Cornell is the band’s greatest performance or not is a dorm room debate for music lovers, many of whom are well into their fifth (or sixth) decade of living and beside the point of simply appreciating a band playing at the height of their powers on a night that is now part of musical history. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Other posts about the Grateful Dead

Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review - Playing With Fire

In the annals of modern American history, there are few years more consequential than 1968. It is, in its way, the dividing line between the post-World War II years and the modern day, pregnant with a whole litany of “what if” scenarios that would make anyone who believes in the Butterfly Effect dizzy. In Playing With Fire, the MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell digs into that tumultuous year with vigor and insight. A few missteps aside, for anyone who wants a neat and tidy survey of the political landscape as our country teetered on the edge of political civil war, this is the book for you. 

1968’s importance is axiomatic. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy are psychic wounds that the country still grapples with. The Vietnam War was “lost” in the late-January Tet Offensive that crippled President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to seek a second full term as President that was already weakened by the insurgent candidacy of Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon staged an improbable political comeback, fought off challenges from governors like George Romney, Nelson Rockefeller, and the up-and-coming Ronald Reagan, while the country was tearing itself apart over the war and civil rights. 

It’s a lot and O’Donnell juggles these meta narratives capably and fairly. O’Donnell’s portraits of these political titans is even-handed and he avoids falling into the romanticism of a say, Chris Matthews, who waxes rhapsodic about RFK’s quixotic run, opting instead for a mostly clear-eyed assessment of each man’s strengthens and weaknesses. To wit, RFK is, of course, a magnetic personality who immediately attracted the support of legions upon his entering the race, but O’Donnell is unafraid to point out the opportunism in his move and the uncertainty Kennedy had, almost until the minute he announced, about running. LBJ is a petty and domineering personality, humiliating his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, at every turn while currying favor and offering tips to Nixon, an idea that is unthinkable today. Nixon is ruthless and calculating, but O’Donnell also gives the man his due for seeing opportunity and seizing it, moving ruthlessly toward his ultimate goal of winning the Presidency.

O’Donnell is at his best in set piece discussions around major events of the year. He ably navigates the Democrats’ convention in Chicago (which, candidly, feels like it deserves its own book) and the waning days of the general election, when it became clear to LBJ that the Nixon team had established a back channel to South Vietnam, discouraging the Thieu government from working with Johnson and promising a better deal when the Republican took the White House. O’Donnell also has a touch feel for the inside game of politics, the crafting of speeches, the leaking of information for political gain, and general skullduggery that goes on in the heat of a race. 

O’Donnell’s own history as a Senate staffer influences the lesser known stories he tells.  O’Donnell puts you in the room when Teddy Kennedy flies into Green Bay for a secret meeting with McCarthy just before his older brother is about to enter the race and in the Humphrey hotel room as the sitting Vice President prepares to address a convention that has descended into chaos. But more than that, O’Donnell provides the necessary framing, helping the reader understand political motivations, decision making, and behavior that can only come from having sat in those rooms and watched as those calculations are made. 

While O’Donnell draws a few clear (and obvious) lines between 1968 and the modern day, be it in Roger Ailes’s meteoric rise and the beginning of the now-fifty-year “Southern Strategy” Republicans have deployed to play on white fears in the service of electoral gain, the professionalization of campaigning, the use of town halls formats and advertising, the end of party broker selected nominees in favor of primaries, oddly, he does not draw the clear analogy between McCarthy’s insurgency, and subsequent refusal to try and elect Humphrey, with the same actions of Bernie Sanders in 2016. And while it is fair to point out that unlike McCarthy, Sanders did endorse his primary challenger, like McCarthy, who, less than two weeks before election day endorse Humphrey, Sanders showed a similar dispassion toward the task. When A. Phillip Randolph took out a full-page ad pleading with McCarthy to endorse Humphrey, echoes of those making a similar argument - you may not like Clinton, but do you really want Trump - could not have been clearer. While the Vietnam rift was greater than anything the Democrats dealt with in ’16, the idea of a party less than unified in support of its nominee accruing to the benefit of their opponent is true nonetheless. 

O’Donnell also places more importance on the “Chenault Affair” than I think reasonable. O’Donnell makes it sound like LBJ’s confirmation of the back channel between Nixon’s team and the South Vietnamese government could have been a game changer that swayed the election; however, the late discovery (less than a week before the election) suggests that had Johnson done as he threatened to do - leak the information to the press - it could have just as easily been dismissed by the Republicans as a desperation tactic as a treasonous act to help elect a Republican President. Here too, the echoes of 2016 come into play, with information about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia being kept under wraps, but again, O’Donnell does not draw the obvious parallel. 

I also quibbled with O’Donnell’s coda. Although it is true that Nixon scrapped out a less-than-one-percent popular vote victory, O’Donnell implies Illinois’s electoral votes were dispositive when in fact they were not. Had Humphrey won Illinois, Nixon would have still won 275 electoral votes, a bare majority, but not enough to change the result. Of course, the narrowness of Nixon’s win was in large part due to Wallace’s presence as a third-party candidate preaching a more virulent form of white supremacy than Nixon could dare espouse. Four years later, Nixon easily carried all the states Wallace won in 1968 along with 61 percent of the popular vote, a total matched in the 20th century by only FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964. 

1968 will always be an important time in our nation’s history; a year when something as simple as a candidate exiting a campaign rally in one direction instead of another or a storm blowing through Memphis a few hours later than it did might have altered the course of history. But we only have the history that happened, and Playing with Fire documents it nicely. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Sunday, April 22, 2018

It Was Not Dusty's Fault

In recent years, no baseball team has won more preseason World Series titles than the Washington Nationals. Like clockwork, experts and prognosticators gush over the team’s talent and promise that this is the year they will get over the hump and bring the nation’s capital its first World Series title in almost 100 years. The expectations are understandable. Since 2012, the Nats have won four NL East titles and more regular season games than any other team except the Dodgers. Their pitching staff is anchored by Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young award winner and their number two, Stephen Strasburg, is becoming a threat to pick up his first. The everyday lineup stars Bryce Harper, the 2015 league MVP and other young stars like Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner. 

Of course, the team’s futility in the playoffs is well-documented. For all their regular season success, the Nats have been ushered out in what feels like successively more excruciating ways each October. The most recent failure cost the team’s manager, Dusty Baker, his job, even though he had piloted the team to division titles in both his years at the helm and 95 and 97 wins, respectively. Exit Dusty, enter Dave Martinez, the Cubs former bench coach who was expected to bring some of that Joe Maddon magic from the Windy City.

But in another year of World Series hopes, the Nats are sinking, and sinking fast. The team got off to a strong start by sweeping a three-game series in Cincinnati, but that has turned out to be fool’s gold. Not only are the Reds by far the worst team in the league, but since then, the Nats are 7-11. They are in fourth place in the division, four-and-a-half games behind the Mets. And here’s the thing, commentators can talk about slow starts and unusually cold weather, but for the Nats to get to 90 wins this year, they will need to go 80-61 (.567), to get to 95 wins, their mark in 2016, they will need to go 85-56 (.602) and to get to 97 wins, they will need to win 87 of their last 141 games, a .617 clip. In other words, a team playing .500 ball will have to play better baseball than division winning teams did over the entire season. 

Granted, the Mets and Phillies, the early division leaders, will come back to the pack. The Mets are relying on pitching that has not held up in recent years and the Phillies are a (mostly) young team that as recently as last year, was the league’s worst. But the Nats cannot count on other teams’ failures and the squad this year does not inspire much hope. Ryan Zimmerman, last year’s comeback player of the year, is back to his pre-2017 production, which is to say, very little. Adam Eaton, who the Nats gave up their three top pitching prospects for, missed most of last season with a knee injury, and after playing a handful of games this year, is again injured. While Harper is playing well, he’s getting little help from the rest of the squad, and the one bat the team desperately needs, Daniel Murphy, is still two weeks from returning. The pitching has been mediocre, the bullpen shaky (shocker), and yet, Martinez seems to be avoiding blame while offering precious little in terms of solutions. 

This state of affairs is depressing for a Nats fan. Everyone understands this may be Harper’s last year with the team and management was handed a surprise gift when last off season’s free agent class lingered far longer and many players signed for far less than expected. The Lerners are the richest owners in the sport and can be profligate spenders when they want to be, but they could not pony up $75 million over three years for Jake Arrietta? They did not think that a better back-up plan at first base than Matt Adams made sense? 

With Harper and Murphy a year away from free agency and Rendon a year behind then, why the Lerners did not go all in, especially when so many free agents were in the bargain bin, is beyond me. And what message does it send to Harper, Murphy, and Rendon that you are not willing to spend when the championship window is open? I know there is “a lot of baseball” left to be played, but we have also seen this movie before. In both 2013 and 2015, coming off dominating regular seasons that ended in playoff heartbreak, the team fell flat, missing the playoffs and finishing just above .500. It may be too early to say that will happen again, but the early returns do not look promising. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Monday, March 26, 2018

Scapegoating Facebook

Relax, everyone. The media has found the real culprit behind all the shenanigans that resulted in Donald Trump becoming President.

Is it Jim Comey, the FBI Director who sent a letter to Congress 11 days before the election to advise Congress he had re-opened his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email usage while also hiding from the public the fact that his agency had an active, counter-intelligence investigation into the Trump campaign? Nah. Comey got a huge advance to write a book and is weeks away from a promotional tour that will further burnish his reputation in the media as a straight shooter.

Is it the Russian government that hacked into the DNC’s computer servers and John Podesta’s personal email account? No, the Trump Administration has not even bothered to spend money specifically appropriated to address Russian interference in our electoral process.

Is it Wikileaks? They took those stolen email and disseminated all of it on the Internet and timed the releases strategically (during the Democratic National Convention and in the final weeks of the campaign) for maximum exposure. Nope, Julian Assange is still holed up in an embassy nearly suffocating on his own sanctimony.

Is it the media itself? That organism that decided it had Hillary Fatigue before she even announced for President, spent two years calling her shady, conflating her campaign against Trump as a  “lesser of two evils” election, and, of course, reported out on all that stolen email (which they knew was stolen at the time), serving to reinforce the very narrative they had created about her untrustworthiness. Of course not.

No, reporters have decided to pull out their pitchforks and storm Silicon Valley demanding the head of Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s crime, such that I can tell, is having lax standards about the protection of private information millions of its users voluntarily give up as part of the Faustian bargain we have agreed to in making social media an integral part of our lives. Now do not get me wrong, it is not a good look when it is revealed you accepted ad payments during the 2016 campaign in rubles or that Cambridge Analytica was able to so easily vacuum up information that should have been protected.

But scapegoating Facebook serves a very important purpose for the serious people on TV who analyze politics – it absolves them of any responsibility for what happened while conveniently laying blame at a company with which many people have a love/hate (or in some cases hate/hate) relationship.

Essentially, “the media” (that is, print journalism, cable news, and online news outlets) are saying:

“See folks, the problem was Facebook allowed you to get duped into believing things that were not true, we had nothing to do with your finding Hillary less trustworthy than Trump by spending nearly two years talking about her use of a private email server, an offense so minor, the State Department’s Inspector General could barely slap her wrist for doing it. No, it had nothing to do with CNN covering empty podiums at Trump rallies as “breaking news” or airing his rally speeches in their entirety, thereby saving him the effort of having to do paid advertising. It certainly had nothing to do with making up stories about the Clinton Foundation, suggesting no wrong doing, just “questions being asked.” About what? Who knows? It just mattered that an A-rated charity doing good work for millions of people in the third world was portrayed as some sort of slush fund for the Clintons to live a comfortable lifestyle. And it most assuredly did not have anything to do with an FBI Director flouting DOJ guidelines by commenting publicly about an investigation into a political campaign less than two weeks before an election. No, that guy got a sweet six-figure advance and the ever-lasting knob-polishing of the press for being a man of moral rectitude, not an aider and abetter of Trump’s election.”

No, it’s all Facebook’s fault.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

How To Cancel The Trump Show

In the climactic scene of the 1983 movie Wargames, a computer runs a myriad of nuclear war simulations, trying to determine whether there is a way to “win” such a fight. After exhausting all of the options (each of which resulted in total annihilation), the computer realizes “the only way to win is to not play.” 

I thought about that scene when Donald Trump went to Pennsylvania last night to rally support for a local candidate for Congress. “The media,” and by that I mean cable news, major newspapers, and online news outlets, are constantly gnashing their teeth over the Trump presidency and how to cover it properly, so here was a real-time opportunity to test whether they had learned anything from 2016, when, to take one oft-cited example, CNN cut to an empty podium where Trump was scheduled to speak hours later, and deemed it “breaking news.”

Would restraint be shown because Trump was going to campaign for a Republican candidate for Congress three days before election day and giving him airtime might put the Democratic candidate at an extreme disadvantage? Would anyone bother to wait until if/when Trump said something truly newsworthy before airing his remarks? Of course not. His remarks were carried live on cable news and his speech was then sliced into clips and disseminated far and wide, grist for hours of TV show coverage and print media reporting. 

Did he say anything newsworthy? Hardly. He called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” for the millionth time, bragged about the stock market, and hang on to your hats folks, told the audience what his 2020 reelection slogan would be. WOW. 

But Trump and the media are in a co-dependent relationship. Indeed, if you have the temerity to question whether it is appropriate or warranted to cover a Trump speech that is larded with insults, inaccuracies, and flat out lies, none other than the New York Times chief political reporter, Maggie Haberman will hop into your Twitter timeline to reprimand you. 

This is all of a piece with a narrative that reporters who cover politics have settled on - Trump runs a “reality show” presidency with the attendant plot twists, character arcs, blurring of fact and fiction, and cliffhangers that genre of entertainment is known for. Reporters, instead of focusing on what Trump does, not what he says, have played into this by covering Trump and his presidency like gossip columnists, not reporters. This should not be surprising - studies of the 2016 election showed little appetite for policy discussions and that tradition has carried on today. Consider the hand waving that occurred as Republicans saddled us with trillions in new debt while an entire day of media coverage was dominated by a fake “meltdown” by Sam Nunberg or Hope Hicks’s resignation as White House Communications Director. 

Like the computer in Wargames, the only way to “win” this game is not to play it. Media outlets can monitor what Trump says at a rally and dip into his remarks if he says anything newsworthy, but simply putting him on air so he can spread his own message without fact checking or question is acting as his propagandists, not his interlocutors. If the media continues to cover him the way they did last night’s rally, we as consumers have to change the channel, not click on the articles, or read the tweets. Ultimately, the only way a reality show gets canceled is when ratings go down. So too here.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Slow Burn

Watergate. The mere name conjures a time in our country’s history when the rule of law was challenged in ways we would hope would never happen again. And yet, its relevance is greater than ever, and thankfully, Leon Neyfakh’s hypnotic, addictive eight-episode podcast Slow Burn not only takes us back to that time when it seemed like our nation teetered on the precipice of collapsing, but forces us to consider what might happen if history repeats itself. 

Neyfakh is not content to simply convert All The President’s Men into podcast form. In fact, his goal, at least in the first few episodes, is to sniff around the lesser-known angles or those simply lost to history. And so we start with the curious case of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s first Attorney General and the weekend she was essentially kidnapped and held against her will in order to quell any risk that she might go public with what she knew, almost in real time, about the break-in. There is also Congressman Wright Patman, a Democrat who was onto Watergate early on, only to be kneecapped by a coalition of Republicans and some of his fellow Democrats, who put a quick end to his investigation. 

There is value in understanding these stories because it forces us to reconsider the accepted narrative that essentially boils down to two dogged reporters from the Washington Post working sources and breaking front-page news that inevitably led to Nixon’s downfall. And while there is truth to that (although, interestingly, Woodward and Bernstein are barely mentioned in the season’s eight episodes), the effort Neyfakh put in, through interviews, research, and writing, gives the story greater resonance. Whether pulling clips of then-RNC Chairman George H.W. Bush inveighing against Nixon’s antagonists in late 1973 (“let the man do the job”) or Nixon’s maudlin and rambling April 1974 address to the nation as he desperately clung to power, it is clear there is much more to the story than Deep Throat leaks in parking lots and the “missing” seventeen-minute tape. 

Slow Burn operates on two levels - it tells the story of Watergate, but its subtext could not be more clear, the (potential) parallel between Nixon’s downfall and the current investigation into President Trump, his aides, and the 2016 campaign.

For those who think today’s reporters spend too much time fetishizing Trump’s die hard voters, consider the episode True Believers, where we learn that the same thing was being done 45 years ago, when the bar flies and blue collar Democrats of Queens who supported Nixon did so because they feared societal changes reflected in the anti-war, women’s rights, and civil rights movements. They did not much care whether Nixon was guilty of any crimes (a vague whiff of “fake news” permeated their thinking) so long as he pushed back against the cultural changes they hated. Their attitude echoes forward today, where the xenophobia and racism of Trump’s “white working class” voters in the midwest is channeled through Trump’s demands for a border wall, criticism of NFL players, and wink-and-a-nod at white supremacists in Charlottesville. Indeed, stoking these racial prejudices was at the core of Nixon’s political strategy long before Trump appropriated it for his own gain. 

Or take Rabbit Holes, which focuses on the proliferation of conspiracy theories during the Watergate-era. On the one hand, that this happened is unsurprising. As Neyfakh points out, Watergate was a conspiracy, and so, its existence allowed for a cottage industry to sprout where a plane crash that killed one of the Watergate burglar’s wives (Dorothy Hunt) who had $10,000 in cash on her when the plane went down, was believed to be an assassination because she had information that could have harmed the President. Mae Brussell, who is the focus of much of Rabbit Holes was, in her way, the Alex Jones of her day. On her syndicated radio show, she mused about the imminent revocation of the Constitution and the military’s use of dune buggies (don’t ask) as signs of a pending coup d’etat. Her 18,000 word manifesto, which spun out her various theories on shadowy figures controlling our government, was published during the heart of Watergate, and would not be unfamiliar to modern day Americans who think FEMA is herding people into concentration camps or Obama is a secret Muslim. 

Slow Burn picks up speed as the inevitable denouement comes into focus. Saturday Night is a thriller in miniature, detailing the frenetic 36 hours that led to Nixon’s firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the resignation of Nixon’s Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, who refused to carry out his order. The episode is made better by interviews with the Special Prosecutor’s staff reminiscing about a mad dash back to the office as word broke of their boss’s firing to ensure the evidence they had gathered would not be taken and the excavation of newscasts at the time, reporters at a loss for words and fearing for the future of the country. Listening to Saturday Night you can feel how close we came to a true constitutional crisis, but in pondering that near escape, you inevitably wonder, if something like that happened today, would we survive? 

Of course, the comparisons to the Trump/Russia investigation are inevitable, but the distinctions are, in some ways, as important as the similarities. As Neyfakh discusses, the original Watergate Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, was almost a caricature of everything Nixon stood against - an east coast elitist (Harvard Law professor) who had served as Kennedy’s Solicitor General. His staff was full of young liberals who despised Nixon and wanted to see him taken down. Now compare Cox with Robert Mueller III, the man investigating Trump - Mueller, unlike Cox, is a member of the same party as the President, with “law and order” bona fides that stretch back decades. His team is made up of deeply-experienced career Department of Justice prosecutors and FBI agents, yet Trump is attacking Mueller and his team as rank partisans whose bias is disqualifiying. While Nixon did ultimately fire Cox, he did most of his fighting before that fateful weekend in the courts, not in the court of public opinion. That Nixon did not fully appreciate how badly he misjudged his action may be what is keeping Trump from doing the same. 

It is also important to consider that Nixon did not have what Trump has - a right-wing echo chamber that functions on a daily basis to undermine the investigation. While both men had/have die hard supporters who either refuse to believe the allegations or do not care if they are true, the fracturing of news media today is a benefit Nixon could not take advantage of. And perhaps most importantly, Nixon was faced with a Democratic Congress, which exercised its investigative prerogatives in ways that the Republicans who run Congress today, refuse to do. 

The essential thesis of Slow Burn is that Nixon’s resignation was not foretold and, in real time, the idea Nixon would quit the Presidency at the pain of impeachment and removal, was farfetched. It may be true that if Trump follows a similar path, we will look back the same way. Sitting here today, there seems like a lot of smoke around Trump, but as he chisels away at the credibility of Mueller’s work, a hurried resignation seems like a pipe dream as Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill lay the foundation for dismissing the results of Mueller’s work as partisan and biased. Of course, as Neyfakh shows, this same strategy was being deployed by Nixon, but ultimately, when the proof became incontrovertible, Nixon fell on his sword. I am not as confident Trump will do the same. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Book Review - A World Without Whom

If this book review is tl;dr, just know that Emmy Favilla slays in her epic style guide, A World Without Whom. Emmy is the hero we need to navigate the increasingly murky waters of English usage in the internet age and she takes on this challenge with confidence and brio. If you came for tips on proper punctuation, grammar usage, and when to cap major holidays, Emmy is here for that; however, where she really shines is in acting as a witty and self-deprecating guide to the ever-mutating rules of the road for writing on the internet. Her task is a Herculean one – unlike generations ago, when the OED was updated once every decade and the uproar caused in 1961 with the publication of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Third Edition) took years to sort through, the internet (lower case, in case you were wondering) has changed the rules of the game and requires near-constant updating on questions like “do you put the emoji inside or outside the quotation marks” that copy editors of yesteryear could not even imagine (the answer, by the way, is “outside”).

If A World Without Whom was simply focused on the never-ending battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists, it would be a pithy, but unremarkable addition to the niche area of English usage books in the library that dorks like me love. Favilla checks the boxes in her early chapters so readers are educated about the nuances of en- and em-dash usage, but things really pick up once the former Copy Chief at BuzzFeed (Favilla is still with the website but in a different role) digs into more important matters like contextualizing “Neville Longbottoming” and “thirst trap.” For an old like me, perusing the internet can seem like reading words in a foreign language and A World Without Whom is an excellent decoder ring.

Ms. Favilla is a cheeky writer, born on the cusp between Generation X and Millenials, (capped as proper nouns), her writing is sprinkled with sarcastic parenthetical asides the former will appreciate combined with the glib, acronym heavy patois the latter will recognize immediately. But even as Favilla is examining the outer bounds of English usage in the internet age (“is it ok to use the word ‘cock’ in a dek?” (a dek, we learn, is editorial lingo for sub-heading)), her feet are firmly planted on more prosaic issues like the adoption of the singular form of “they” (she supports, as do I), and the eternal battle over the Oxford comma (ditto and ditto).

While the internet has democratized language in new and important ways, for example, the use of emojis to provide greater richness and context to statements that might otherwise be open to interpretation (a complaint of the early years of email – “they lacked ‘tone’”), in others, everything old is new again. Slang, and its mainstreaming into the culture via social media, is a subject Favilla delves deeply into so that you can properly pull out your receipts and sip your tea (although Favilla will be happy to know “jiggery pokery” made a comeback in one of Justice Scalia’s final dissents in 2015). But the thing is, appropriation of language has gone on since at least the first Airplane! movie and Grace’s “righteous dude” monologue in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s just that those riffs are now turned into GIFs (hard G in BuzzFeed style guide, fyi) and memes that have merged with common terms to create a new way of communicating.

And there is more. As Ms. Favilla rounds third and heads for home, she pours one out for lol to show how quickly jargon that originated in the internet-age can be sapped of its original meaning. First used in the literal sense that you were “laughing out loud,” twenty years on, lol has become the um, er, or like of electronic communication – a throat-clearing way to fill space while the sentiment lol was originally used to express has been supplanted by 42 (!) alternative methods (not to mention “crying man” emoji, the most popular emoji of them all).

Coolness in the culture has, is, and always will be driven by what people under the age of 30 deem it; which is why Facebook is now the Dad Jeans of the internet as younger people migrate to different platforms away from their parents’ preying eyes. And so, there is also the risk that A World Without Whom itself will become outdated or look like as dusty a relic as my 1911 Oxford English Dictionary, only in far less time. It is hard to know, but, as they say, nothing lasts forever, not even cold November rain (or the hyphen in “email.”). Nailed it.